In January 2012, Paul Ennis and his wife became caregivers to Paul’s parents, Mary and Thomas. Mary, who had severe osteoporosis, was showing increasing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Caring for her was becoming too much for Thomas who had his own health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis and prostate cancer. Eventually, it became necessary for Mary to receive around-the-clock care. With his own health declining, Thomas made the difficult decision to move Mary into a care facility. Then, he made another decision that led to what Paul describes as a series of very impactful events.
Thomas, who was 91, decided it was time to die. He was in pain, he was suffering, his body was failing, and his doctors could do no more for him. He told Paul he was ready to go. So Paul, someone who is inclined to gather information, set out to see what options were available for his dad. “He had the right to say he’s done,” says Paul who learned that his dad could legally make a choice to stop eating and drinking and that there was a protocol in place for the family to follow. With the doctor informed and at-home hospice care in place, Thomas made his decision. He stopped eating on a Thursday in January 2015 and four days later he died peacefully in his home of more than 40 years. Eleven months to the day later, Mary also died at home, and Paul is still moved as he describes his mother in her final rest, in the glowing light of the living room of the home she loved.
But, Paul’s caregiving didn’t end when his parents died. Paul saw to all the details of their death care and burials, including building their caskets and taking them in the back of his pick-up truck to their cemetery plots. “It was a real old school way of doing things,” says Paul who learned about the option of home death care when shopping for caskets with his dad in 2014. “What I discovered about home death care was remarkable.” The experience, he says, was an intimate and healing way to honor his parents and to receive a form of closure.
Paul documented his story when an online global think tank asked for stories regarding how people could rethink end-of-life experiences for loved ones. Paul’s was one of ten stories selected out of 400 entries. He was inspired to create a business model for a non-profit organization to aid with death and dying, but rather than focus on a singular aspect of patient care, Paul wanted to help patients in as many ways as possible.
He remembered a conversation with one of his dad’s doctors. The doctor told him that he should consider patient advocacy as a career. As a former business consultant with a background in communications and marketing, it felt natural for Paul to become a patient advocate consultant. He is now spending time building his new consulting business. “Mine is a communications-based practice,” says Paul, who approaches each client by asking them what they want. “I don’t come in telling them what I want to do; I come in asking what they want,” he says. While caring for his parents, he learned the value of having a patient advocate and recognizes how difficult it can be for some patients to self-advocate. “Navigating healthcare is pretty complicated,” says Paul whose natural compassion makes him well-suited for the work. Paul emphasizes the importance of patient health, safety and dignity and says the most important thing to him is that people are able to make choices, explore their options, get educated, and stay empowered. He also continues to share his story and information regarding the Voluntary Stoppage of Eating and Drinking (VSED) and at-home death care in hope that someone may get comfort from his experience. “That’s why I told the story,” he says.
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.